Karen Martin’s Home Movies: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Obvious Child ,A Coffee in Berlin , Third Person

October 11, 2014

By Karen Martin
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

A Million Ways to Die in the West,

directed by Seth MacFarlane

(R, 116 minutes)

Much of A Million Ways to Die in the West is very, very funny. The moments in between, which range from awkward to unsuccessful, get a pass for being good-natured.

Good-natured isn’t the same as family-friendly. If you’re distressed when confronted by bloody pratfalls, body-function demonstrations, misogyny and gay-bashing, cursing, detailed descriptions of sexual acts, ethnic insults and crude put-downs, this ruckus of a comedy is not for you. And although it’s puerile, don’t invite the kids to watch. Really.

The film’s title refers to a major drawback of living in 1882 Arizona, according to Albert (MacFarlane), a mediocre sheep farmer who complains to whoever will listen about the death-defying challenges of his environment. Using slang-loaded language typical in the 21st century (it’s doubtful that “awesome” was in widespread use in the 1880s), Albert spends what should have been a romantic waterside outing whining about unsafe conditions to his beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried).

No-nonsense Louise, who regards such unmanly behavior as unattractive, coolly transfers her affections to wealthy sophisticate Foy (hilariously played by Neil Patrick Harris).

Devastated Albert, who never saw this coming, is served booze and sympathy during a saloon outing with best pal Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his wife-to-be Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a very busy prostitute. Then, when a brawl breaks out (one of the aforementioned ways to die), Albert somehow manages to rescue new-to-town Anna (Charlize Theron) from the melee.

From then on, this gorgeous, capable, spirited and worldly-wise woman is the one doing the rescuing. Anna is instrumental in helping Albert envision an existence beyond Louise, one filled with potential and confidence. For a while, anyway — until Anna’s cruelly criminal cohort Clinch (a studly Liam Neeson) shows up.

Fans of MacFarlane’s Fox series Family Guy and his 2012 comedy hit Ted are aware of his fondness for ridiculing people and situations that have it coming. Here the idyllic image of the Old West is the victim, from the film’s classic opening-credit sequence to an almost obligatory run-in with local American Indians (led with sly panache by Wes Studi) that turns the noble image of the tribe on its head.

About the only aspect of the film that plays it straight is the grand oh-so-1950s-Western score by Joel McNeely, bringing back memories of Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won and Jerome Moross’ The Big Country. And there isn’t much that MacFarlane could do to wreak havoc on the magnificent and ruggedly Western backdrop of Monument Valley. Not that he didn’t try.

Obvious Child (R, 84 minutes) Obvious Child is not a perfect movie, although it capably tells a story about Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a fledgling standup comedian who gets dumped by her boyfriend, has a one-night stand with another guy, and ends up pregnant.

It’s probably not correct to describe Obvious Child as a pro-abortion movie. People like Donna, who make mistakes and have regrets, exist in the world. People make the sorts of decisions that she makes. And they go on with their lives.

What matters about Obvious Child is that it doesn’t run away from the subject of abortion as most movies do. If you go into it looking for a hammer with which to batter writer-director Gillian Robespierre, well, she has left plenty lying around. Help yourself.

A Coffee in Berlin (unrated, 88 minutes) A passive, sometimes melancholy semi-comedy, this German indie follows a day in the life of Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a 20-something Euro-slacker who lives for the moment as he drifts through the streets of Berlin, curiously observing everyone around him and oblivious to his growing status as an outsider. Then on one fateful day, through a series of absurd encounters, everything changes. With Marc Hosemann, Friederike Kempter; directed by Jan Ole Gerster. In German with subtitles.

Third Person (R, 137 minutes) The best that Third Person has to offer are scenic visits to Paris, New York and Rome. That’s where the seemingly unrelated stories of three couples with trust issues play out, some more successfully than others.

In Paris, a full-of-himself Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Liam Neeson), after leaving his wife (Kim Basinger), plays ferocious mind games during the course of his affair with an irritatingly arch young journalist (Olivia Wilde). In Rome, a one-step-ahead-of-disaster American wheeler-dealer (Adrien Brody) falls all over himself in desperate pursuit of an annoyingly cryptic and troubled woman (Moran Atias) encountered in a scruffy bar. And in New York, a lawyer (Maria Bello) gets deservedly exasperated in her efforts to help a train-wreck of a mother (Mila Kunis) in a nasty custody battle with her renowned artist ex-husband (James Franco).

Hints as to where all this is going are few and far between, to the point that you might not care when a resolution of sorts presents itself. But it’s fun watching this terrific cast gnaw on the magnificent scenery of the stunning cities where they’re playing out various intrigues, some of them fascinating, some of them pointless.

Bonus features include a filmmaker commentary with writer/director Paul Haggis.

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